Microsoft’s new Surface Book is easily the most compelling device the company has ever made. It’s attractive, in a slightly boxy, brushed-aluminum sort of way. It’s super powerful, yet light and thin. It works with a stylus, it detaches to become a tablet, and it has the craziest hinge you’ve ever seen. But the Surface Book isn’t exciting because it’s new and weird and different. It’s exciting because, when you look past all the bells and whistles, this is just a laptop. After years of trying to force everyone into the future it imagined, Microsoft built one for the world we actually live in.
The evolution of the Surface lineup mirrors almost exactly the story of Windows. When the Surface first came out in 2012, it was a showcase for Windows 8. (Microsoft said then that Surface was made “to bring Windows into the physical realm.”) Windows 8 was based on a single idea, which was all but written on the box in Steve Ballmer’s enthusiastic handwriting: Touch is the future! Sure, Microsoft seemed to say, we’ll sell you a keyboard. It’s terrible and you’ll hate it, but at least it’s thin and there if you need it. When you need finer control, here’s a pen—that’ll work too. But the age of the mouse and keyboard, the Surface proposed, was dying.
That was wrong. Not only do many of its customers adopt new tech slowly—particularly the ones in IT departments who are still supporting Windows XP and fielding questions from users about broken ThinkPad TrackPoint nubs—it turns out that the most capital-P Productive way to use a computer is still, for most people, a mouse and keyboard. That’s not changing anytime soon.
So then came the docks, the accessories, the promises about replacing your laptop, the improvements to the attachments and the total ditching of that awful Touch Cover accessory. But that still didn’t solve the problem. The problem was with the whole idea. “The tablet that can replace your laptop” is a false proposition. A tablet can’t replace your laptop, because it just does different things. We don’t want one device to do everything—part of the appeal of the cloud-first world is that we don’t have to make compromises. We can do everything on its right device. And what we’re doing, like it or not, often looks like work.
The Surface Book isn’t made to convince you of a new way of doing things. It’s a laptop that can replace… your laptop. When its base and display are docked together, it’s one of the best Windows PCs on the planet. Compared to the new MacBook, which counts as Apple’s vision for the future of mainstream laptops—tiny, thin, hardly any ports, very little power—the Surface Book is a beast. For $1,499 and up, you get a high-end Intel processor, up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, 12-hour battery life, and lots more. It’ll be a killer gaming machine and Xbox companion, a great tool for editing video and photos, and man will it make your Excel spreadsheets fly. This isn’t a bet that everything’s moving to the cloud and all you want is something you can slide into your bag. That’s Apple’s idea. Microsoft’s idea is that there are people who need their laptop to spit fire. And this thing does. That you can detach it and get a slightly unwieldy, but still very impressive and usable, tablet is just a bonus.
Right now, that’s what people want. Not everyone—lots of people just want phones—but certainly Microsoft People. They don’t want a device that is mostly tablet and a little bit laptop. They want a laptop. If it’s also a tablet? Great! But it better be a good laptop first. They have work to do. And the future where everything’s done with touch, or voice, or mind control, just isn’t here yet.
This device feels like a long, long overdue answer.
This device feels like a long, long overdue answer.
Give Microsoft credit for acknowledging this. Even before it began talking about Windows 10, Satya Nadella’s Microsoft has climbed up on every available rooftop and shouted a new vision: Microsoft is the company that builds tools for people who get stuff done. You can use one of those tools, or a few, or all of them—but if you’re in the business of doing things, odds are there’s something from Microsoft that will help you. Maybe it’s Windows 10, maybe it’s Office, maybe it’s just the Wunderlist to-do list app. You can pick and choose, because Microsoft’s most important promise is that it’s going to try and work with everything.
If you start from that premise, that Microsoft is primarily about helping people get stuff done right now and not about ushering in some new futuristic idea about how we use technology, the Surface Book feels sort of inevitable. The Surface Book is the device for today. Really, it’s the device for three years ago—this is what Microsoft should have made in the first place. Just as Windows 10 should have come before Windows 8, helping people learn new rules in an otherwise familiar environment, the Surface Book could have been the device that helped people understand the potential for touchscreens while also helping them continue to get their work done this week and next.
Of course Microsoft wants to also stay ahead of the curve; it learned a hard lesson by missing mobile because it held onto the desktop paradigm for too long. It’s smart to keep pushing the envelope forward, showing people how things might work in the future. That’s why HoloLens is important, and why the Surface Pro 4 is a device worth making. Not because anyone will buy it today, but because it puts Microsoft in a position to be part of that world if and when it arrives. And as billions of previously unconnected people begin to come online, they’ll want and need different things—Microsoft is smart to try to be there too, with Lumia phones and other devices.
But for now, and for the foreseeable future, most of the world Microsoft inhabits isn’t changing much. People still need devices that help them do their work. They want laptops, they want great keyboards and trackpads, they want all the power they can get their mitts on. And if they can get all that, plus a device that gives you the occasional glimpse at an awesome future where everything’s at our fingertips and we can just make Cortana do all our work for us? Perfect. If Microsoft did this right, that’s what the Surface Book could be. And for everyone who looked at the Surface Pro and wondered how hard it could be to make this weird thing a great tablet and a great laptop, this device feels like a long, long overdue answer.